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Sexual Harrassment and Volunteering

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An oft-cited rallying cry of contemporary feminism attributed to Flavia Dzodan reads “My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit”. What would it mean to say the same thing about volunteering asks Janet Horner

Recently, I spent a week in Palestine climbing trees to pick olives and on political tours, which is about as far from the world of Hollywood and the unfolding Harvey Weinstein and sexual harassment scandals as you can get. And yet as the revelations continue to emerge from more and more organisations, individuals and contexts, both near and far, we have all been invited to broaden the conversation and to examine the ways that sexual harassment, objectification and exploitative power dynamics are present and impact upon our own contexts, professions and circumstances.

Having travelled overseas many times previously on international volunteering experiences (Malawi 2005, Uganda 2006, Uganda 2010, Ethiopia 2011 and India 2013) and worked with Comhlámh for years on promoting best practice in volunteering, I found myself on my most recent trip abroad to Palestine with the Joint Advocacy Initiative, reflecting on sexual harassment in the volunteering context and how it can be addressed. Principally, I questioned, were we doing anything at all to address what we surely know to be a rampant problem for many volunteers we send overseas?

I thought back to the pre-departure training that I have both undertaken and delivered and which, in my experience, do little to address the gender inequality that volunteers will surely encounter and little to explore ways to address that. I questioned whether did advice I had given to volunteers was adequate to deal with the deeply layered power dynamics of harassment? To adapt and respect the host culture, to dress according to the norms of one’s host society and to accept things that are different from the norms we know; after all we are there as learners and participants, not to change the ways of others.

But what about when accepting a host culture means accepting sexism and sexual harassment?

Is it right to tell (often times very young) women without question or examination that they should not offend the host culture or put themselves in harm’s way by showing parts of their bodies?

How do we invite volunteers to examine their own gender biases and assumptions that they bring with them to the host context?

How could we equip both men and women travelling to developing countries to respond better to their respective positions of privilege and disadvantage that they will find themselves in?

Is there a role for development education in questioning these norms and questioning how we engage with them as social justice activists committed to a project of justice and equality (presumably) not just between countries but between genders?

I thought about my previous and most recent experiences overseas and the unquestioning ways in which I had seen others (and myself) accept dress codes, derogatory and unwanted comments, unwanted lines of questioning and subservient roles to male colleagues, even all the way up to sexual assault and harassment. In most of these cases, the response of both the person themselves, fellow volunteers and the sending agency was to brush, or even laugh, off these incidents as an inevitable aspect of any intercultural experience. Little more was thought of them and little done to address them. To do so, the suggestion seemed to be, would be to overstep the mark of interfering in a host culture.

If we do decide that sexual harassment and gender inequality is unacceptable and should be challenged, regardless of the cultural context (which I hope we do), who then does the onus lie with to address these incidents? Is it on the woman, or man, themselves to protect themselves, to call out each incident and to seek to address it? An inconceivably daunting task in many contexts. Or can there be a role for the sending agencies and the Comhlámh Code of Good Practice in setting standards and norms and working with partners to ensure volunteers and locals work in an environment that promotes equality and inclusion?

The roles of men and women around the world greatly differ from those in our own society. In no society have we yet perfected the project of gender equality and gender justice. Can we not find ways to work as volunteers together in solidarity with our sisters and brothers around the world for the liberation of all people?

In closing I’ll invite you to consider the words of another oft-cited woman and how we might apply this philosophy to gender equality in the volunteering context; “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson, Australian Indigenous Rights Activist


Janet is a Comhlamh member. Over the past number of years she has volunteered in Malawi, Uganda, Ethiopia and India and has worked with Comhlámh on promoting best practice in volunteering.


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